Carl Trueman: Knowing the Times

August 07, 2008

Knowing the Times: Recent Controversies in Context

Carl R Trueman
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Westminster Theological Seminary (PA)

Seminaries and Orthodoxy: The Historical Pattern

As a historian, the one thing I always try to avoid is making definitive statements about recent events: while eyewitness and participant accounts of historical happenings can make very exciting reading, they often lack the more dispassionate perspective which time and emotional distance bring in their wake.  Thus, they are frequently less satisfying as historical interpretations than they are as what English schoolboys of yesteryear might have called `ripping yarns.’  Nevertheless, it seems apposite at this point, even as an eyewitness and participant in recent events at Westminster, to offer a few simple thoughts for the lay observer on the historical context and significance of our struggles.

It has become something of a proverb in evangelical circles that most conservative or confessional theological institutions have about seventy-five years of life in them before they evidence significant changes in theological direction.  One might add to that another oft-repeated observation, that such change does not occur slowly by a kind of gradual evolution; rather such change tends to take place almost overnight.  A third comment, perhaps just as frequently heard in such circles, is that theological institutions always become broader theologically, and the clock can never be turned back in a more orthodox direction.

Where do these ideas originate?  And why is it that they do seem to many, at least at the level of a gut reaction, to be true?  Well, the answer, of course is, that there is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that they do in fact reflect reality, even if the generalized timeline is somewhat negotiable.  Think of Princeton Theological Seminary.  It was founded in 1812, enjoyed a heyday of orthodoxy, and then, in 1929, it was reorganized and the old theology of the Westminster Standards vanished from its lecture theatres almost overnight.  Think of Fuller Seminary.  Founded after World War II to spearhead the development of an evangelical scholarship which was both orthodox and academically rigorous, it boasted a stellar evangelical faculty; yet its commitment to inerrancy vanished within two generations.  In both cases, the change happened swiftly and, up until this point anyway, there appears to have been no significant return within these institutions to anything resembling the older theological paths.

Generational Shifts

There are good reasons why these kind of things can happen.  Don Carson once commented that the first generation fights for orthodoxy, the second generation assumes orthodoxy, and the third generation abandons orthodoxy.  That, of course, gives you roughly seventy-five years before problems start to become evident.  We might flesh that out a little.  In the case of institutions founded out of times of crisis, members of the first generation were often bound together by common struggles, perhaps within a denomination or within a specific institution.  Thus, they knew who they were and what they believed; they had made a clear stand on points of principle, and some had even made huge personal sacrifices so to do.  The second generation lived in the intellectual and cultural space carved out for them by the first generation but lacked the controversial context which bound their fathers together.  The third generation has little or no contact with the struggles of the first, and, in almost Freudian fashion, can actually find the behaviour of their institutional founding fathers to be somewhat embarrassing.  Like the anecdotes told by the boring great uncle who always starts a conversation with the phrase, `During the war….,’ the antics of their forefathers, and those who harp on about them, are just so much eye-roll inducing tedium.

The Harlequin Problem

Yet the context of the modern seminary is even more complicated than the typical generational psychology would suggest.  Such an institution faces further pressures beyond the growing distance, emotional and otherwise, from the theological and ecclesiastical fights of earlier generations.  The modern seminary faces the need to produce thoughtful scholars who engage the academy as well as train young people for the church, and this is not as easy a task to accomplish as it was for earlier generations.  In the seventeenth century, theology was a single discipline and a teacher of theology was expected to have a mastery of all relevant fields: biblical languages, exegesis, theology, and ecclesiology.  This model persisted for a long time: even in the early twentieth century, a man like B. B. Warfield was able to contribute competently at a scholarly level to New Testament studies, systematic theology, and church history, while also writing helpfully for the layperson.  

Nowadays, however, with the veritable deluge of information and the increasing specializations which are part and parcel of the proliferation of subdisciplines, the typical professor has enough trouble keeping up-to-date with his chosen field let alone being competent to contribute outside of his narrow specialization.   This generates almost intolerable problems for those who, like Harlequin, have to serve two masters, academy and church, when the demands of those two masters are not necessarily or frequently compatible.  When they conflict, to whom are we accountable?  And when our subdisciplines collide with those of others, who, if anyone, gives way?  Do we simply allow the cacophony of our various specializations to lead us to abandon any notion of the unity of truth, or of articulating a coherent theology?  And, before those outside are too quick to rush to judgment on either side, how many of you have ever said a prayer that those of us who negotiate these issues every day might be given wisdom as to how to do so?

Truth is Not Necessarily Stranger than Fiction

It is worth noting at this point that there is also one further complication for an accredited seminary with a doctoral program, a complication of some significance relative to Westminster over recent days: the requirement of the accreditation agencies for tenured teaching faculty to possess that most basic academic union card, a PhD degree, a demand which may have been passed over in times past but upon which accreditors are now increasingly bearing down. Indeed, the rules on this are very clear, and Westminster has no choice but to bring itself into conformity with this basic requirement. 

In my opinion, this is an absolute no-brainer for any institution of higher education which makes claims to academic integrity; how much more for one which runs a doctoral program.  My own background is that of the secular university system in Britain.  There one cannot even make a shortlist for a job these days without not only a PhD but also at least a guaranteed contract with a proper scholarly press for a monograph. That seminaries have typically had lower standards on this matter and employed faculty who have spent many fruitless years on doctoral programs has not served them well but has rather compromised their academic integrity. 

In this context, it is always more exciting and glamorous to read certain events at Westminster through the lens of theological or personal differences, to see a particular professor as a martyr to his alleged theological courage; but the rather boring and prosaic truth is that sometimes it is purely a technical matter of lack of  professional qualifications or equivalent in scholarly publications, and nothing more spectacular or conspiratorial.  Contrary to the popular saying, the truth is often far more mundane and straightforward than fiction.

Let me make this point of academic policy crystal clear: while I am Academic Dean, I am determined to make sure that the bar is now raised on this matter of scholarship and academic qualifications; and I am committed to making sure that the relaxed policy of previous years is made a thing of the past and that Westminster brings itself into line with the rules of its accrediting agencies.  Indeed, I look forward to that day when all teachers on the PhD program will actually have PhDs themselves and will thus have proved themselves capable of the level at which they aspire to teach.  This is surely not an unreasonable goal for Westminster, and certainly something which doctoral students are entitled to expect their professors to possess.

The Ever-Broadening Boundaries of Evangelicalism

One final factor, in addition to disciplinary fragmentation and the Harlequinesque demands of serving two masters, church and academy, is the problem of the ever-broadening boundaries of what is acceptable evangelical theology.  Evangelical scholars David Wells and Mark Noll are only two of the more significant thinkers who have drawn attention to this.  In his new book, The Courage to be Protestant, David points to the increasing doctrinal minimalism of evangelicalism.  Where once a raft of doctrines were assumed, now evangelicalism is defined almost by institutions and ethos rather than by theological confession.  If it is taught at a seminary calling itself evangelical, for example, or published by a press which has evangelical roots, then it is within the range of evangelical thought, even if it involves a low view of scripture, rejection of penal substitution, or even a question mark over the Trinity. Further, Mark, in his book, Is the Reformation Over?, points out that many evangelicals, perhaps most, now reject justification by grace through faith as understood by the Reformers, a doctrine which has historically been one of the distinguishing hallmarks of evangelical Protestantism.  Strange times, indeed, when even the basics can no longer be assumed; but we must acknowledge that we stand at a point in history where the purview of evangelical thought is not determined by historic Christianity but is rather a function of the breadth of the beliefs of the faculty who serve at evangelical seminaries, the commissioning editors who work for evangelical presses, and the ministers who fill evangelical pulpits.

Westminster, Professor Peter Enns’ Book, and the Wider Context

Westminster occupies an unenviable position in all this.  A seminary which sees itself as both academic and confessional, yet has no formal ecclesiastical connection, is always going to have to face tough decisions on the direction forward.  In addition, for all the reasons above, it is doubtful that Westminster is the only institution which will go through similar traumas in the coming decade.  The challenges to traditional views of scripture in particular are coming thick and fast at the moment from within the evangelical world itself; and the impatience with the old creeds and confessions is palpable in many quarters.  

The debate over Peter Enns’ book is thus one example of a much wider phenomenon: the struggle to define what responsible evangelical scholarship looks like at the start of the third millennium.  That the divisions over this book cut across disciplinary, ecclesiastical, and scholarly lines is an indication of just how complicated the matter is; and those of us (unlike the many self-appointed internet pundits) who have sat through hundreds of hours of meetings and discussion of the matters involved, who have lost good friends in the fray, who have seen and experienced at first-hand the personal cost on both sides, and for whom the whole matter is anything but glamorous, know that the situation is as complex as it has been painful.   Indeed, so difficult is it that I cannot begin to offer a full analysis of the controversy and the outcome here, but yet I do believe it worthwhile and necessary to offer a moment’s reflection on recent events.

Confession and Accountability

So what is the significance of these recent events?  As Academic Dean and as Vice President for Academic Affairs, I believe this lies above all in two specific areas.  First, it is now clear that Westminster is to be committed to a doctrine of scripture that reflects what is taught in the great confessions of the Reformation, and which has nurtured the confessional evangelical church for centuries.   As evangelicalism in general broadens out, as it loses its connection with its confessional Reformation past, as it becomes increasingly vacuous at a doctrinal level, the leaders at Westminster have decided that that is not the path this institution will go down.  We will not accept that the Reformation creedal heritage is no longer relevant; we will not accede to the indefinite broadening of evangelicalism’s doctrinal horizons; nor will we subscribe to the modifications of the doctrine of scripture which are such a necessary part of that broadening.  Rather, we will stand where we have always stood, on the great solas of the Reformation: Christ, scripture, grace, faith, and, above all, God’s glory.  We are not, and will not be, a seminary which repudiates the great catholic legacy of the Reformation and of subsequent confessional evangelicalism.

Second, it has been made clear that Westminster professors are to be held accountable to more than just the canons of their chosen academic guild or the current trends of thinking in their various subdisciplines or even their friends and colleagues on Faculty.  Accountability in times of crisis, of course, is always a painful experience. There is a human cost on all sides which press releases, theological statements, and minutes of meetings rarely, if ever, convey.  While theology is indeed a great hobby, it is too often a nightmare of a profession.  Yet those who teach must be held accountable for their teaching, however hard that may be; and, for too long at Westminster, too little attention has been paid to what we as Faculty teach while too much, perhaps, has been paid to what others outside of our church constituencies think of us.

The Future: Counter-Cultural and Counter-Historical Theological Accountability

This move to accountability for our beliefs and teaching is a profoundly counter-cultural, counter-historical move.  As noted, the dynamic within evangelicalism seems always towards doctrinal minimalism; and the history of seminaries, with some notable exceptions such as Concordia and Southern, seems always towards more concessive, liberal positions.  Yet to take the path of an ever-broadening theology would be to betray our heritage and to fail to serve our churches.  This is not in itself, of course, a denial of the faith or the integrity of those with whom we disagree; but it is to say that there is a place – a vital and necessary place – in the evangelical world for those who hold to clear doctrinal standards, who define themselves very much in terms of belief and in relation to those historic confessions they see as most faithfully explicating scripture. 

Does this restrict freedom of speech or academic freedom, as some have claimed? Well, no-one has to take the Faculty Pledge and commit themselves thereby to upholding the teaching of Westminster Standards: the First Amendment guarantees that the Westminster Standards can never be imposed as a condition of American citizenship or civil freedom; and, beyond that, evangelicalism is broad enough to provide plenty of professional opportunities for those gifted scholars who cannot do so. But make no mistake: those who choose to be Faculty at Westminster are voluntarily bound by the Faculty Pledge to non-negotiable standards of doctrine, life, and teaching.   Thus, it is not enough to believe that one sincerely subscribes to the Westminster Standards; it is not sincerity that validates Faculty subscription.  One can, after all, be sincerely mistaken about one’s position; and, in the current crisis, I for one can say that I doubt no-one’s personal sincerity in the matter of the Faculty Pledge.  But, to reiterate, such personal sincerity is not enough.  It is actually believing and embracing and living the teachings of the Standards, as summaries of the system of doctrine taught in scripture, which is required; and the judgment on whether one is doing that lies not with the conscience of the individual or even with one’s colleagues on Faculty, but with the Board of Trustees, as those charged with maintaining the orthodoxy of belief and practice at the Seminary.

In short, I suspect that in years to come the recent conflicts at Westminster will come to be seen as struggles which reflect the tensions of the broader evangelical constituency of which we are, in a sense, a part.  They will be seen as part of the battle of the next decade, over what exactly biblical authority means.  They will be seen as part of the struggle between an evangelicalism which finds truth claims increasingly distasteful and a more historic, confessional evangelicalism which believes and loves the assertions of the great creeds and confessions of the church as things which have fed and inspired Christians throughout the ages – some, even today, to the point of death.  Above all, it is my hope that they will not be seen as anything glamorous or exciting but rather as part of a necessary, if extremely painful, move to make Faculty accountable for their beliefs and as an attempt to bring a once-great seminary back to the integrity of its historic, confessional, evangelical moorings.



  1. Darryl Hart said,

    August 8, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    No comments yet here or over at the usual-suspect blogs — Art Boulet and Conn-versation. I guess I didn’t get the memo that further discussion of the Enns matter has been cancelled. Either that or the rapture happened and I’ve been left behind.

    Even so, and as dangerous as it might be to take on Prof. Trueman, I do wonder why he views this episode as one in the larger narrative of evangelicalism in North America. WTS used to sit very ambivalently in relation to evangelicalism. Machen’s greatest antagonists at PTS were not liberals but evangelicals — Erdman and Stevenson. The WTS faculty led OPC efforts to remain confessional in the 1930s when McIntyre and Buswell tried to move the new denomination more in the direction of generic pietistic Protestantism. The original WTS faculty led the OPC in rejecting membership in the National Association of Evangelicals. Faculty at WTS were critical of the lack of an adequate confessional basis for Fuller Seminary’s founding. WTS opposed supporting Billy Graham’s Philadelphia crusade in 1962. Van Til’s book, The New Evangelicalism, was especially critical of the neo-evangelical movement as something from which Reformed Christians should keep their distance. So WTS had a pretty strong track record during its first 35 years of remaining outside the evangelical orbit.

    So if the Enns controversy is an episode in the larger American evangelical narrative, it may be because WTS changed its older relationship and tried to move into the evangelical mainstream. In which case, the recent travail could be what happens when Reformed institutions become evangelical.

  2. August 9, 2008 at 8:10 am

    […] 9, 2008 at 8:10 am (Theological Encyclopedia) Carl Trueman’s piece on the Pete Enns controversy, in my mind, has at least one thing pegged (this is distinct from what […]

  3. Richard L. Lindberg said,

    August 9, 2008 at 9:06 am


    It could be that Carl was simply comparing the discussion at WTS to what has gone on in other seminaries. When I was a student at WTS in the 1970s I would not have thought of it as anything but a Reformed institution even though P.E. Hughes was on faculty and there were a few Baptists like me in the student body. Maybe things changed in the early 80s when half the faculty I had studied under left for California and elsewhere.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    August 9, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Darryl, I have it on fairly good authority that this post is meant to address some of your concerns:

  5. jeffhutchinson said,

    August 9, 2008 at 10:14 am


    More of this historical background is very helpful. It does seem plain that, at least in some ways, Westminster “changed its older relationship and tried to move into the evangelical mainstream.” My sense: In some ways that has been a good thing, and in some ways that has been a bad thing (I know that is saying almost nothing, but that’s all I’ve got this morning!). At any rate, it seems to me that it is precisely because of the very important questions you raise about WTS’s CURRENT relationship with evangelicalism that the Administration released two articles at the same time. VP Garner’s article is definitely meant to be an accompanying piece to VP Trueman’s article.

    All the best, and hoping you are still finding time to play hoops at Calvary’s gym (it would be a bit of a drive for me; plus the fact that I tore my ACL playing there with you and others).

  6. Darryl Hart said,

    August 9, 2008 at 10:34 am

    GB: The old WTS faculty’s tensions with evangelicalism that I noted did not prevent them from participating in those other venues, any more than my self-professed identity as non-evangelical keeps me from speaking at Wheaton, ETS, or non-OPC churches. Heck, Christopher Hitchens, a man of the left, has spoken at events sponsored by ISI (an institution of the right). And George Will continues (does he still?) to be a commentator at ABC, not to be confused with “we-report-you-decide” Fox News.

    Individual Christians participate in networks outside their communal boundaries all the time (well after 1790 anyway). That doesn’t mean that Reformed Christians are somehow more evangelical than they are Reformed. The important point for me is ecclesiology, something that Trueman has well pointed out evangelicalism does not have. And the churchly Presbyterian loyalties of old WTS faculty was significant to their remaining outside evangelicalism’s institutions. (Whether they recognized the difference between confessional and evangelical Protestantism is another matter.)

    In point of fact, it seems to me that an ecclesial understanding of Reformed Christianity makes better sense of the particulars supplied in Rosell’s history than one that regards Reformed Protestantism as a piece of the evangelical mosaic.

  7. Darryl Hart said,

    August 9, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    GB: one more thing, I have it on pretty good authority that Trueman agrees with me on the differences between evangelicalism and historic Protestantism. Listen to this: “If evangelical bookshops and publishing houses are good gauges of what evangelicals read and think, then one has to say that neither the sacraments nor corporate actions (outside of the realm of political activism) seem to hold much interest for evangelicals today as they would have done for Luther. Books on individual acts of piety abound; books on the corporate aspects of Christianity are somewhat less common. As for the sacraments, understanding of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper are, in my experience, minimal in both baptist and paedobaptist circles. Far from being integral to the church’s practice of piety, they are frequently considered as added extras, traditions we do for the sake of it, or simply as confusing.”

    Or this: “evangelicalism for all of its pride in its orthodoxy, has seldom spent a great deal of time reflecting upon the creedal and confessional heritage of the church, and its scholarly representatives have proved no exception to this general rule, preferring the modern penchant for novelty over any notion that the church may have indeed got certain things basically right over the last two millennia.”

    The author? None other than Dr. Trueman, the first from “Was Luther an Evangelical?” (Practical Calvinist, 147), the second from Wages of Spin, 70.

    The question is why someone who wants to maintain and defend the heritage of the Protestant Reformation would be satisfied with being evangelical. The Old WTS faculty certainly understood the difference. So it seems does the current WTS faculty. The latter don’t even have trouble expressing it.

  8. jedidiah said,

    August 10, 2008 at 12:42 am

    Dr Hart, I have a question that you may have addressed in one of your books that I haven’t read yet. Why didn’t Machen and the original WTS faculty place itself under the authority of the OPC? Was it simply that the seminary was already established and rolling along fine by the time the OPC was formed? It seems a little bit inconsistent with what you are saying was their churchly theology. Perhaps they simply couldn’t foresee denominations such as the PCA and Sovereign Grace thinking of WTS as their seminary too?

  9. ReformedSinner said,

    August 10, 2008 at 1:00 am

    I’m sure Dr. Hart would have an in-depth answer, but the short version I am aware of is that Machen saw how Princeton was re-organized by the PCUSA General Assembly, and fear the same thing will happen to WTS if it submits to any denomination. By inference, Machen believed it’s easier to ensure the purity of the school rather than purity of the church.

  10. Darryl Hart said,

    August 10, 2008 at 8:07 am

    Jedediah, Machen died only six months after the OPC was formed. It was not a time to restructure the seminary.

    But around 1944 the OPC did appoint a committee to study whether WTS should be a denominational seminary — interesting that it was assumed the OPC had the where with all to do this. Most of the committee was either WTS faculty or WTS administrators. Their conclusion, whether Dutch-American or not, was to appeal to sphere sovereignty, and place education under the authority of families (the way that Dutch Calvinsts do) and not the church. I think the OPC would later rue that determination.

    Reformed Sinner is also right about fears of what happened at PTS. A seminary controlled by the church could be forced to turn left with the church. Few saw it coming that the seminary could turn left in pursuit of “conservative” evangelicals.

  11. David Gilleran said,

    August 10, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    The same thing is true with RTS. It never came under the PCUS control when it was formed. When the PCA started it never sought to come under PCA jurisdiction. The original RTS BOT did not want any ecclesiastic control in the way the old PCUS seminaries where controlled by the GA and Synods.

  12. jedidiah said,

    August 11, 2008 at 11:31 am

    Thanks Darryl. I can see how timing and the (bizzare? unfortunate?) Dutch ‘sphere’ theology could have played into the independent structure of WTS.

    Ultimately, I am grateful that the OPC brought in Van Til and thus some ‘Dutch-ness’ to its DNA. And I can see how GA control as a way to keep a seminary in-check would not necessarily have been a convincing model to the WTS/OPC founders after what happened at PTS (I got my M.Div. fro Union in NYC. We know how ecclesiastical oversight worked there). But in the end, the raison de’tre for any seminary seems naturally to me to be to train ministers of the Word and Sacrament (not Ph.D. granting or even training Christian “leaders”). If that’s the case, seminaries should be not only generally or ‘confessionally’ tied to the life of the ecclessiastic bodies they intend to supply, but constitutionally under their oversight. Even though PTS went sour, it was because of sour elements in the life of the church it served. So, even though Covenant is not neccesarily the best place to train for ministry, it has a better structure than WTS and RTS.

  13. August 11, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    Am I right in thinking that whether WTS was independent of denominational control or not, the faculty were still held accountable to the same confessional standards?

  14. ReformedSinner said,

    August 11, 2008 at 3:15 pm


    Don’t be so sure of that. I doubt Covenant has a “better” structure. Different perhaps, but that only bring on different problems and different solutions. Had WTS not been independent, I doubt it can handle Enns controversy the way it did. Had WTS been under OPC or PCA, Enns would probably remain the OT professor, and a rally point to force OPC and PCA to be “more open” to “conservative evangelicalism.”

    As for Eccelisatical oversight. One has to look no further than Shepherd and Enns to realize there are ample pressure from the eccelisatical body that WTS serves. Now WTS model isn’t perfect, but today I’m glad they have the model they way they have.

    The issue I still see here are people draw a line between “training for ministry” and “training for Ph.D.” To me that’s a mystery to me: the more me learn about God means the less we know how to do ministry… or to learn how to do ministry you can’t learn too much about God… I’m confused.

  15. cbovell said,

    August 11, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Carl Trueman’s post seems to assume that scholarship on the highest level can be done equally well in each of the disciplines and yet remain within the confines of confessional orthodoxy, but the pattern seems to suggest that these days, at least, scholarship done at the highest levels will eventually force some scholars in certain disciplines right out of confessional orthodoxy and into that confounded nebulosity, non-confessional evangelicalism.

  16. itsreed said,

    August 11, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Ref 15:


    Every generation of Church history has those brilliant men who wander off the reservation (i.e., come to conclusions outside the pale of Orthodoxy) and some brilliant men who convincingly demonstrate that Orthodoxy is still sufficient.

    Your observation seems to grow out of an a-priori conviction that today the only “real” scholarship (i.e., at the highest level) is being done by those who challenge a fundamental doctrine of Orthodoxy, to wit: inerrancy.

    Sound pretty hubristic and self-serving :)

  17. cbovell said,

    August 11, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    You said something similar on the other thread about me having a priori assumptions regarding conservatives. Why a priori and not a posteriori? Why might I not be making a more or less informed judgment based upon my reading and training? Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions. Reed, I feel like all I hear about when people comment on something I say here is assumptions. “My assumptions have led me here” or “My presuppositions have taken me there.” As far as I can see with respect to my scholarship remark above, it’s the case that I’ve been reading and studying in conservative circles for fifteen years or so and I’ve drawn a conclusion based on it. Sure, I might be wrong, but why go ahead and tell me that I have some a priori conviction– as if my whole brain has been somehow distorted toward some anti-conservative bias from the inside-out without a shred of evidence? Aren’t I entitled to make some judgments based on the bit of exposure I’ve had in conservative circles and then order my thoughts in accordance with them?

    Maybe we can advance our dialogue on another front. I, in my own time in school, have been most impressed with scholarship that investigates things of the faith that the faith takes for granted, especially when it reveals some natural facet of what I would typically consider too sacred to scrutinize. After a while, I have generalized that response to critical scholarship and form the following judgment: “Real” scholarship will have the guts to say this or that facet of Christianity is false for this or that reason. Real scholarship will not proceed by saying ahead of time that this or that must be right or else the faith is compromised or that this or that must be wrong else the faith would be vindicated. But confessional orthodoxy cannot ask questions the way that would qualify it as real scholarship when scholarship is understood in the way I just described. Another thought is that the faith should withstand scrutiny if it’s in fact true, but confessional orthodoxy insists a priori that the faith can’t be wrong. That’s a scholarship stopper, in my book, at least at the “highest” level.

    I’m sure you’re not exactly going to eat this up, but any thoughts, Reed?

  18. ReformedSinner said,

    August 11, 2008 at 10:22 pm


    What you are describing is definitely autonomous atheistic scholarship, but it’s not Christian scholarship. Autonomous atheistic scholarship asks the all questions presuming humanity as the highest authority and ultimate ability to answer them. Christians don’t just ask questions autonomously, but we asked based on what is revealed. When God says He is good, Christians don’t ask: “But what if God is not always good…” as some “real scholarship” would, but we believed and based on that belief we asked, “how good?”, “what is the difference between his good and our good?”, “how can God be good and there are suffering at the same time?” That’s what we ask.

  19. cbovell said,

    August 11, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    RF: I believe I can ask all the same questions in an inquisitive manner that is neither atheistic nor autonomous for example: What if God’s way of being good is not what I originally understood as “good”? What if God’s scripture’s are not inerrant in the way that I had previously understood them to be inerrant? What if the exodus account was somehow “written” by God but never really happened and people just believed the story and it helped them get close to God? and on to questions like, Based on the mistakes I’ve made regarding my conception of God as good and my understanding of inerrancy, for example, what if my very ruminations about God are commonly (but not always) projected onto God by me on the basis of my cultural, biological, psychological and linguistic makeup? How precisely is God active in the world if it is true that my predilection toward faith can be largely accounted for neurologically, psychologically, sociologically and anthropologically? and lastly: Why are these types of questions ones that true believers aren’t even allowed to ask? Why are these questions not given further consideration in seminary (the place of scholarship), but rather routinely called mischievous and signs of unbelief? Are believers unwittingly perpetuating a delusion?

    I am recounting actual periods of questioning that I have as a believer. I do not interpret these as autonomous, atheistic questions. Their heartfelt and existentially pressing questions that became part of my growth process in the faith at one point or another. Not all of them receive satisfactory answers, and some probably don’t have any answers at all, but I still wrestle with them from time to time; the biggest one being, for whatever reason, the question of the authority of scripture. “Real” scholarship, to me, will face these questions square on and attempt an honest answer, and not decide in advance that it must offer a prefabricated answer that will validate the tradition time and again.

    You may say that such periods of continual questioning are indicative of some serious spiritual malady, but I am persuaded (in my case at least) that to suppress these types of questions (especially in God’s name) would precipate a far worse condition than the one already present.

  20. Ron Henzel said,

    August 12, 2008 at 6:07 am


    You wrote:

    “Real” scholarship, to me, will face these questions square on and attempt an honest answer, and not decide in advance that it must offer a prefabricated answer that will validate the tradition time and again.

    But what if we do face these questions square on without deciding in advance on any prefabricated answer, and our scholarship still ends up validating tradition time and time again? Then what?

  21. Darryl Hart said,

    August 12, 2008 at 6:07 am

    And now for something completely different.

    Rodney Trotter over at Ref 21 has a LOL funny piece on the relationship between Reformed and evangelical Protestantism at WTS:
    (I can barely type this I’m still laughing so hard.)

    Rodney contends that the original title for Machen’s best-remembered book was not Christianity and Liberalism but — hold on to your hats — Christianity and Evangelicalism.

    Aside from the side-splitting humor, Rodney actually has a point. At the time that Machen wrote, leading liberals, like Shailer Matthews, the dean of the Div. School at the University of Chicago, called himself an evangelical. This was two decades before the word evangelical, thanks to the efforts of the NAE, Fuller Seminary, and Billy Graham, came to be associated exclusively with conservative Protestantism. Prior to the 1940s in the United States, evangelical was a term that included all Protestants aside from Unitarians and Seventh-Day Adventists. Harry Emerson Fosdick was as much an evangelical as Benjamin Warfield.

    Which also means it is anachronistic to speak of Machen (or the original WTS) as evangelical in the Billy Graham sense. The only options available to him were fundamentalist, evangelical (in this generic Protestant sense) and Reformed. And when asked what he was, Machen invariably responded the way he did to the board of William Jennings Bryan University when they asked him to preside over their new school. Machen wrote:

    “I never call myself a ‘Fundamentalist.’ There is, indeed, no inherent objection to the term; and if the disjunction is between ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Modernism,’ then I am willing to call myself a Fundamentalist of the most pronounced type. But after all, what I prefer to call myself is not a ‘Fundamentalist’ but a ‘Calvinist’ — that is, an adherent of the Reformed Faith.”

    So kudos to Rodney for this great insight. And here I thought he was merely a humorist.

  22. its.reed said,

    August 12, 2008 at 7:01 am

    Ref. #17:

    Carlos, you say,

    “Why a priori and not a posteriori? Why might I not be making a more or less informed judgment based upon my reading and training? Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.”

    Quite simply, you are making a unverisal statement. As a “conservative” (am satisfied with WCF 1), I am necessarily covered by your comment. Yet you know nothing about me. You know nothing about my background, my own journey to my convictions. You have no idea what struggles I may have had, and with what sincerity I may have engaged those struggles.

    I.O.W. you have no idea whether or not I’ve come to my conviction after a sincere-questioning-and-study process comparable to the one you used to reach your conviction. Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions. Don’t you see this?

    I would add I believe this is even more so with professional scholars like Richard Gaffin. You have no idea unless and until you converse with him in depth on such matters. The fact that a scholar has not engaged these questions, shall we say, in writing – according to your methodology I might add – does not mean they have not engaged them in their thinking.

    It’s just arrogance Carlos to affirm such a conclusion as you have. It shows more about your own opinion of the conclusions of these men than it does the correctness of their conclusions. You sound as if, since they do not follow your approved methodology, and they do not reach your conclusions, therefore they are unthinking, unengaging men whose conclusions on such things as WCF 1 are at least suspect, or in your case, to be jettisoned as worthless.

    Time and time again Carlos I read in your comments more about your own experience than I do an actual substantive criticism of those you disagree with. It’s as if blogging is serving as a catharsis, but one in which you are merely using stereo-types of the position/people you disagree with to validate your own conclusions.

    Carlos, this too is another mischaracerization, a universal resting on your opinion:

    “Real scholarship will not proceed by saying ahead of time that this or that must be right or else the faith is compromised or that this or that must be wrong else the faith would be vindicated. But confessional orthodoxy cannot ask questions the way that would qualify it as real scholarship when scholarship is understood in the way I just described.”

    You blanket condemn all confessional scholarship as unthinking, as asuming that it always begins from the position of having to prove the traditional answers, of a-priori assuming their validity and so the only task of the scholarship is to defend that validity. Quite simply Carlos, if that is the case, then either you have not read very much of confessional (Reformed) scholarship, or you are not a careful reader. Such a gross mischaracterization is just silly.

    Please understand Carlos that I’m writing and engaging you not because I feel the need to argue, or to defend the traditional confessional answer (in an unthinking way or otherwise). Rather I write out of concern for you. Do you realize that living under such convictions you have effectively shut yourself off from real conversation with confessional (Reformed) scholarship? You come presupposed that such scholars do not (cannot?) honestly engage the “hard” questions. You have no choice but to not hear what their saying, as you’ve already written it off.

  23. Ron Henzel said,

    August 12, 2008 at 7:36 am


    You mean the Ref 21 article was just a parody? Then I guess we can ignore the rumor about Fredo’s lawyer, Tom Häagen-Dazs, ordering Rodney Trotter’s favorite pet hamster decapitated and its head placed under his bed sheets…

  24. jedidiah said,

    August 12, 2008 at 10:18 am

    Re 13 & 14: Yes, the same standards. But the standards are always really embodied ecclesiastically in different ways. On that “same standards, different churches” line of reasoning, the OPC and the PCUSA could be construed as sharing standards. The fact is, there are lots of different ways the Presbyterian denominations (even conservative ones) ‘subscribe’ to the Westminster standards. That being the inescapable case, the way a place like WTS adheres to the standards should ideally reflect a specific church’s adherence (in my opinion). In the end, WTS ends up acting like an ecclesiastical court, a sort of quasi-church. That’s why I think the denominational seminary model is “better.” If Enns wouldn’t have been dismissed at a place like Covenant that’s because the PCA is not the kind of denomination as a whole that would see him as totally outside the pale (whether one likes that fact or not, I don’t think it is debatable).

    The question of Ph.D. granting is related, not because of any anti-intellectualism but because, like appealing to a broadly ‘reformed’ constituency, it complicates the simple purpose of a seminary. If Presbyterians required Ph.D.s for ordinands, it would not do that.

    Re 21: “At the time that Machen wrote, leading liberals, like Shailer Matthews, the dean of the Div. School at the University of Chicago, called himself an evangelical.”

    Gary Dorrien’s history of American Theological Liberalism identifies this wide “evangelical” stream of liberalism well. He argues that it is not the only stream that contributed to classical American liberal theology but a very significant one. Makes for lots of irony in the present landscape of the PCA/OPC.

  25. ReformedSinner said,

    August 12, 2008 at 11:49 am


    Thanks for the answer.

    1) I failed to see how WTS is a place that acts like a church, even a quasi- one, when it doesn’t provide church discipline nor holy communion, it also doesn’t rule on heterodoxy or orthodoxy but at best provides advisory comments when asked to do so (even in Enns case the reason to suspend him was ‘for the good of the seminary’ and not a rule on his heterodoxy, even thought the reason he’s ‘not good’ for the seminary is his possible heterodoxical views judged by his peers). As for your assertion that it’s not debatable that Enns is outside the pale, that’s exactly the debate and WTS chose a position (he is outside) as an internal academic discipline and not an ecclesiastical one, and you are exactly right that PCA as a body would not have make that tough decision. We already seem how Machen-PTS-PCUSAGA worked out. A seminary can have an identity that’s closely related to a denomination or a few, in WTS-case Historic Reformed Orthodoxy, but that doesn’t mean it has to be under the control of any particular denomination.

    2) I don’t know where you get your “simple” purpose of seminary from. From a historical perspective seminary has always been a place of high intellectual training, and pastors were proud of that (unlike today). This idea of “dual track: ministry vs. academic” is a late modern one. The recent proposal of seminary as a “pure ministry training ground” is also a late modern one. From the beginning rigurous academic training has always been seen as part of your ministerial training.

    When Machen and co. designed the curriculums at WTS they were training “specialists in the Bible” – ministers not scholars.

  26. jedidiah said,

    August 13, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Re #25:

    You are welcome for the reply.

    Regarding WTS as a quasi-church: You are right, that WTS doesn’t pretend to be a church in the true sense. I think you took me a little too seriously when I said “In the end, WTS ends up acting like an ecclesiastical court, a sort of quasi-church. ” In that statement I was commenting on the difficulties that arise when a document/standard that is used for the governance of a real church is taken out of the church and yet used for a similar purpose, as it is at WTS. Neither the faculty or the board at WTS constitute a church court. But despite that fact, and despite the wording of the recent Enns dismissal (as you recognized), they are charged with determining whether or not a professor’s views are within the bounds of a document, the authority of which is granted by numerous actual churches. That’s all I meant. Maybe I should have said that the Board of WTS functions as a quasi-church court. That would be more accurate.

    Regarding the “debate” over Dr. Enns: I think you may have misunderstood my “assertion.” That’s probably because it was a long, carefully qualified sentence, that may have ended up being vague. Sorry about that.

    I said, “If Enns wouldn’t have been dismissed at a place like Covenant that’s because the PCA is not the kind of denomination as a whole that would see him as totally outside the pale (whether one likes that fact or not, I don’t think it is debatable).”

    It was a hypothetical scenario related to my earlier comment about denominational seminaries being in a less difficult situation in terms of serving a constituency. I said that hypothetically, Enns would probably not have been dismissed from a place like Covenant because the PCA “as a whole” would not find his teaching outside the pale of orthodoxy. I probably shouldn’t make those kinds of assertions not knowing a whole lot about Covenant or even the PCA in some regards. I only brought it up because the current president at WTS seems to be pursuing a smaller constituency than the previous administration did, and he has every right to do that. The PCA, for better or worse, is a bigger umbrella, when we are talking about constituencies in the Reformed (Presbyterian?) world, than the OPC, and consists (as everyone inside knows) of a lot of evangelicaishness even in the heart of Dixie. That’s what I meant was not debatable, that the PCA is broader, in this sense, than the WTS (past or present, in my opinion) constituency.

    Regarding seminaries as academies v. ministerial training grounds: I purposely said that I was not coming from an anti-intellectual perspective. My comment had nothing to do with a contradiction of rigorous ministerial training. If you read that you read into my words. You claim that “the recent proposal of seminary as a ‘pure ministry training ground’ is also a late modern one.” I’m not sure what you have in mind here so I can’t say I agree or disagree. Which “recent proposal? What is meant by “pure.” When I said that I think the seminary has a simple purpose, to train ministers, and that I think for that reason they should ideally be under ecclesiastical oversight, I am not saying that ministers should be idiots.

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